Part One Written By: Mike Hamilton, Complex Coordinator, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, @m1hamilton
Part Two Written By: Stacy Oliver, Assistant Director of Housing and Residential Life, Indiana University South Bend, @StacyLOliver
As I was sitting through my fourth year of resident assistant group process at Worcester Polytechnic Institute I began to think, how could this be improved? Now I have to admit that there is nothing wrong with out group process to begin with. It is a standard 3 hour process where a professional staff facilitator gives the group activities to work on for a specified time while current resident assistants observe interactions. It is very similar to resident assistant and orientation group processes I have worked with in the past that also worked really well. However, I still like to look for ways to improve processes when possible. So I started to think about removing the structure of the the program, particularly time limits and facilitation. What I have noticed increasingly over the years is a reluctance to share opinions or be fully genuine in the process by candidates. My thought is that this may be tied to the structure of the program and that there is a facilitator. Within our process the facilitator does absolutely nothing but give the group activities to work on and keep track of time, however groups still seemed to direct their comments and discussion toward this person. The question I started to ask myself was whether the structure limits the groups potential growth or the personalities of the individuals within the group. Working under the assumption that group process is more about the group interaction than the outcome of the activities I believe that removing facilitation will create a more realistic depiction of group behavior.
The ideal setup would be to remove the facilitator and specific time limits from group process. The group would enter the room and find a packet of activities ready for them. The packet would explain that you have “x” amount of time to complete the enclosed activities. My hope is that this process will show the basic level of leadership to the observers. Who becomes the facilitators? Who watches the time? Do they rush to complete activities or work to make sure everyone is heard? With this process we are able to not only see how they work within the activities but also how they work to complete a common goal. The one major risk I see is if a group completely implodes. However I have seen this happen in a standard group process with a facilitator and the facilitator can not do much to resolve issues in a group process setting. It would be interesting to see them try to resolve their own issues knowing that they are being observed and that there is a potential job on the line. While not necessarily realistic in the higher education setting, this process would be great to observe from behind a 2 way glass mirror. Luckily I do not have to wait a full year to try this process. A colleague in the field has agreed to help out by trying it this year with her process.
When Mike shared his idea to remove the facilitator from group process, I was intrigued. Having worked with training and selection of student staff for six years, I’m always looking for ways to update processes. I like new challenges and, to be frank, I like challenging students in new ways. I offered to run this on my campus because we have a very small group process due to the size of our department. This minimized the risk and allowed for easier intervention if things went severely off-track.
We had nine candidates participating in group process. I identified the activities for the evening by determining which ones could be done with little facilitation while also allowing for students to demonstrate target skills of discussion, time management, consensus, and collaboration. I chose activities that I have observed before in a traditional group process setting so that I could more accurately compare the differences.
The current Resident Assistant staff acted as observers for the activities and provided guided feedback via an evaluation form on the following areas:
- Communication Skills
- Knowledge of Resources
- Problem Solving Skills
When candidates arrived, a current Resident Assistant led a brief teambuilder to get them acquainted and learn names. After the teambuilding activity ended, they were handed a packet with two activities and told that they had 40 minutes to complete both and all candidates must participate in both activities.
The first activity the group chose to complete was the consensus-reaching activity in which they were asked to hire a Resident Assistant staff based on brief biographies of candidates. The candidates allowed time to individually review the biographies. Within minutes of discussion starting, a self-appointed facilitator emerged from the group. I was pleased that this did not dissuade the rest of the group from fully participating. Conversation was lively and candid with several candidates taking on roles of pointing out gaps in logic. The self-appointed facilitator did an excellent job keeping the group on track and highlighting discussion points.
I found this activity to be true to my observations of it in previous group processes where there was a facilitator. There was the added benefit of seeing the group work through their own time management issues. This activity easily could have taken the entire 40 minutes allotted to the group [and nearly did!].
To Mike’s point of wondering if the group would interact more candidly, I believe that they did. It seemed that they lost awareness of the resident assistants who were sitting around the perimeter of the room. Without a faciltiator present or in their line of vision, they seeemed to completely forget that this was a piece of an interview.
The second activity asked candidates to build the tallest tower possible with the provided supplies of spaghetti, rubber bands, coffee stirrers, gum drops, and construction paper. The instructions were left vague to allow the candidates’ interpretation of whether they were supposed to be competing to build the tallest tower between two groups or work as a large group. The candidates chose to work as a large group. I had no expectation for which they do, though I thought if they chose to divide into two groups, the element of competition would be an interesting dynamic without a faciltiator.
Interestingly, this is an activity I have done in the past and the facilitator had a minimal role [e.g. declaring certain building materials “unsafe” and having the group remove them from the structure]. Whether it was the lack of facilitator or the time crunch that the group found themselves in after spending 30 minutes on the first activity, this activity was near-disaster. The group spent the bulk of their remaining time discussing and debating. So little time was spent building that there was no reason to issue them challenges, remove supplies, etc.
Of course, having spent much of their time on the first activity added a valuable observation opportunity — working under pressure — that may not have happened if they had simply been provided an allotted time for each activity.
They ultimately pulled it together at the end to construct a tower; however, I am glad that none of them are architecture majors.
At the close of the second activity, I brought the candidate group back together to debrief both activities. I never told them that the facilitator was removed from the activities, but during the course of the discussion, I asked what would have made the activities either. No one mentioned or even alluded to wanting a facilitator. Their reflections focused on how they interacted and communicated with one another.
Removing the facilitator did not change the outcome of group process. Mike and I never expected it would. Instead, we both hoped for a more organic look at the communication and collaboration process of these student leaders. It also contributed new methods of observing the behaviors we were assessing by putting the onus on the candidates to move through the process, gauge their own involvement, and manage the timed activities appropriately. I can’t say with certainty that it changed who we hired, but I can say it gave different clarity to the skill-set of certain candidates.
As far as accuracy and success in the hiring process? Check back with me in a year after the new staff have had their formal performance appraisals.